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The hotel minibar is dying; long live the nearby convenience store

By Nan-Hie In, for CNN
April 8, 2014 -- Updated 0523 GMT (1323 HKT)
Launched in 1974 in a Hong Kong Hilton, minibars are losing out to convenience stores as guests choose cheap over easy.
Launched in 1974 in a Hong Kong Hilton, minibars are losing out to convenience stores as guests choose cheap over easy.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Many hotel giants are phasing out minibars in rooms
  • Revenue from minibars in the United States fell 27% in five years
  • Nearby convenience stores are now preferred by guests

(CNN) -- "7-Eleven killed the minibar."

The sentiments of one hotel manager in Hong Kong could well extend to hotels around the world.

The hotel minibar, loved and cursed at by millions of desperate midnight snackers/drinkers, is on the decline.

Hilton Hong Kong installed the world's first hotel minibar in 1974 by stocking liquors and fridges in each of its 840 rooms.

The move reportedly led to a 500% increase in room-service drink sales and a 5% boost to the company's net income that year.

Soon, the minibar became a near-universal industry standard.

But Hilton recently started backtracking in some of its properties, removing the booze and leaving the fridges in its rooms, for guests to fill themselves.

Other hotel giants, including the Grand Hyatt, Starwood and Marriott brands, are also phasing out this once ubiquitous in-room feature from some of their properties.

MORE: 10 coolest hotel minibar items

It's because we just don't seem to enjoy them as much as we once did.

Mira Moon in Hong Kong still offers bar items along a Chinese contemporary theme.
Mira Moon in Hong Kong still offers bar items along a Chinese contemporary theme.

TripAdvisor recently released a survey that found the minibar ranked least popular among all hotel amenities -- just 21% of respondents found the room fridge an important feature compared with 89% that wanted a free wireless connection.

PKF Hospitality Research found that in the United States, revenue from minibars, which represents just 1% of total hotel revenue, fell 28% from 2007 to 2012.

Robert Mandelbaum, the firm's director of research information services, says properties in the United States have adapted their food and beverage offerings, installing food outlets that resemble "grab and go" mini-markets.

The trend for "convenience eating" is also contributing to a decline in the traditional hotel restaurant that serves three meals a day, he says.

They're being replaced with casual food outlets offering items such as pre-packaged salads.

It's all part of what Mandelbaum calls the "Starbucks phenomenon," a property design and management philosophy that enables and encourages interaction between strangers.

Combine this with the emergence of sociable "millennials" who prefer to mingle in the hotel lobby than order room service, and you have an industry and consumer move away from imbibing in the room.

MORE: First! 8 hotels that changed the industry

Is this such a bad thing?

For those who think inflated prices on items like tiny bags of macadamia nuts and mediocre chocolate bars are offensive, especially when nearby convenience stores offer the same stuff for a fraction of the price, the stocked in-room bar has always been an irritant.

Simon Dell, vice president of operations of Thailand-based ONYX Hospitality Group, agrees.

"We don't want to sell mini-macadamia nuts for $8.50. It's not what people want," he says.

Unfortunately, this party\'s coming to an end.
Unfortunately, this party's coming to an end.

What's more, by eliminating minibars from rooms, hotels can actually save costs, says Dell.

"When (we) remove any content from the minibar it takes a considerable number of tasks out of every (housekeeper's) day, so there's time saved, headcount saved, therefore money saved, which is reflected in the overall price (of rooms)," he says.

Better for a property to focus on amenities guests prioritize, such as Internet access.

"Connectivity is as ubiquitous as the telephone 20 years ago, when it had to be in the room, or like your own shower or bathroom has to be in the room."

MORE: From pillow menus to iPads: A history of hotel perks

$10 Coke 'not right'

Others think the minibar simply needs to evolve to changing needs of guests.

"We can't just give hot and cold running water," says Dean Winter, area director of operations of Hong Kong Hotels & China Projects at Swire Hotels.

Take the example of Swire's Hong Kong property, Upper House -- each room features a complimentary selection (beer, soda, healthy juices, coconut water and snacks) and a separate, chargeable wine fridge.

"We wanted to differentiate ourselves to appeal to discerning business and leisure travelers without following the traditional routes of five-star hospitality," explains Winter.

He thinks "charging $5-10 for Coke is not the right thing to do," as people remain price conscious.

"People appreciate a complimentary minibar or Wi-Fi or movies, and paying a rate and not all these add-ons," he says.

MORE: Hotel minibars: In need of being refreshed?

Less hard booze

We don\'t want them though, according to a TripAdvisor survey.
We don't want them though, according to a TripAdvisor survey.

Today there's far less hard liquor, complimentary or not.

Ten years ago, JW Marriott yanked the petite bottles of liquor out of its chargeable minibars in its Hong Kong hotel, citing low consumption.

At The Mira Hong Kong, miniature spirits were phased out in 2011.

According to the property, "the hard liquor was removed as we prefer to tempt our guests with drinks and entertainment at our open air lounge bar Vibes, and cocktail bar Room One with a live band."

Only corporate or high-paying guests get the fully complimentary minibar.

Cheap trumps convenient

The minibar is also increasingly part of an all-inclusive package.

At Hong Kong's Ovolo Hotel, the complimentary scheme is extensive: guests get a free minibar, breakfasts, plus two-hours free booze daily at its O Lounge, including all spirits and wine.

Removing the prices has also helped remove the headache of arguing with guests over what exactly they did or did not consume, says the hotel manager in Ovolo's Aberdeen branch, Chum Roa.

"It was a source of many disputes in hotels," he says. "If the customer persists they had nothing, often hotels absorb the cost to not ruin guest relations over minibar items."

Now, he doesn't have to deal with that.

Roa imagines a future in which the traditional minibar is extinct.

"The competitor of the minibar isn't nearby hotels but the 24-hour stores where one can get everything you need a few blocks away," he says.

The convenience of having a cold drink in your room isn't quite enough if you have to pay three times as much for it, it seems.

Will you miss minibars in hotel rooms or say good riddance to shockingly priced beer and M&M's? Leave a comment.

Nan-Hie in is a freelance writer based in Hong Kong covering current affairs to lifestyle and entertainment.

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